Women in Photography 2018 Exhibition
I Read I Write | Laura Boushnak

I could barely contain my excitement as I graduated from high school in 1995. I wanted to leave Kuwait, where I was born to Palestinian refugee parents, and to go to university like the rest of my classmates. My father, however, had other plans. He wanted me to enroll in a “secretarial skills” course, and then get a job that would supply me with pocket money until a future husband came along and took care of me.

“Had you been born a boy, I would have paid for your education.” Those were his words, words that many Arab women have heard, and still do, at some point in their lives.

My immediate rejection of the path he chose for me only boosted my resolve to get a university degree, while the frustration his suggestion instilled in me prompted me, years later, to seek out remarkable stories of women in different countries in the Arab world.

I wanted to underline the obstacles these women faced throughout their lives to gain access to education, and tackle the role that education played in their lives.

Looking back at the lives of women in my family, I could identify many of the never-ending ordeals which still dominate the turbulent region, from socio-religious constraints and racism, to political instability and armed conflict coupled with continuous foreign interference.

Dawlat, my maternal grandmother, was married when she was 13, her last year of primary schooling. Four years later, in 1948, grandfather passed away, leaving her to care for three children, a few months before the creation of the state of Israel forced her family, parents and siblings, into exile from their home in Haifa, on the northern coast of Palestine.

Embarking on a strenuous journey for refuge, she finally settled in Irbid, North of Jordan. She and her family were granted Jordanian nationality, as were many Palestinian refugees who settled in the Kingdom after fleeing their homes in 1948.

There she was, a young widow with three mouths to feed, refugees in an unfamiliar community. She clung to her conservative traditionalist upbringing, and focused on work. The sewing courses she gave at a refugee camp in the West Bank helped her provide for her family, until Israel seized that area in the 1967 war, divesting her of a crucial means of subsistence.

Living in turbulent times, my mother decided that learning a trade was more important than high school and enrolled in beautician courses at a technical school. In 1966, soon after graduating, she moved to Kuwait to live with her uncle while working at a beauty salon to support her mother.

Then she married my father. He was a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon who sought work in Kuwait along with many others during the oil boom in the early 60s. Their marriage meant that she would quit work, as was customary, to make a home for the children to come.

My father, the family bread winner, did not believe that providing a decent education for myself and my two sisters was a priority for our household’s meagre finances. I understood the financial argument, but I was disappointed at his utter lack of interest in or encouragement of me furthering my studies, which I saw as the only way to better my life as a stateless refugee at the time.

In fact, mothers in most countries in the region cannot transfer their nationality to their children. Only the father can. Like many in such situations, I had to deal with the consequences of this restriction which granted me access to Lebanese “travel documents”, as my father had, rather than my mother’s Jordanian nationality.

Foreigners in Kuwait were generally barred from enrolling at the state university, while private college education was not available. Therefore, I took a receptionist job after graduating from high school at a new American school for girls, to pay fees for a social sciences diploma at the Lebanese University, in parallel with a distance-learning course at the New York Institute of Photography.

In 1998, at the age of 21, I left Kuwait for Lebanon, where I later embarked on a career in the male-dominated profession of journalism. Aside from the day to day work, the experiences of my youth were still there, pushing me to seek similar stories to my own.

In my early research for this project, in 2009, I learned in a UN report from 2005 that Arab countries collectively had one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. I was astounded!

Along the way I found out about many other constraints, apart from illiteracy, that women in the region face. These include: difficulties or interruptions in access to school and/or higher education, curricula devoid of real learning, low political awareness and activism, lack of appropriate jobs for highly-educated women, wars and internal strife.

All these factors, and many more, cripple a large portion of the people in Arab societies – their women – and hamper developmental efforts for the entire region.

I started the project in 2009, prior to the tumultuous events later dubbed the “Arab Spring”, which took very different turns in the various countries where they occurred.

Tunisia, where the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” erupted after an individual act of self-immolation, has emerged with a progressive new constitution, and a recently passed law penalizing gender-based violence. In Syria, however, the initial peaceful protests soon turned into a complex civil war with regional and international interference, with ongoing repercussions for millions in the region and beyond. Between these extremes, several other countries continue to deal with varying degrees of adversity, with education often a prime victim.

In parallel, it turned out to be a transformative journey for me, professionally and personally, one that changed my work, my perspective on things, and what I was looking for.

In I Read I Write, I attempt to provide a glimpse into the lives of Arab women trying options they are otherwise barred from in the region, in their quest to improve their life, that of their children and their community.

I’ve included some of my most moving encounters with outstanding young women and seasoned housewives who are brave enough to break with some social norms in order to give more to their families and their communities.

I always sought a collaborative approach with the women I photographed. I wanted them to actively participate in the experience, in a way that can be reflected in the final photograph. Their candid, hand-written words, complementing their images, were the perfect way to illustrate their involvement and to display their achievements. Their own personal seal.

About Laura Boushank
Laura Boushnak is a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian photographer based in Sarajevo. Her work mainly focuses on the Arab world, looking at issues that she finds stem from her own personal experience of gender, education, and aftermath of war.

After receiving a degree in Sociology from the Lebanese University in Beirut in 1999, Boushnak infused her interest in social issues with her passion for the visual arts and began her career as a photographer for the Associated Press in Lebanon. She then went on to work with the Agence France-Presse (AFP) at its Middle East hub in Cyprus and its headquarters in Paris. During this nine-year span, Boushnak’s experience included covering hard news in conflict zones such as the war in Iraq and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

As of 2008, she has been working as an independent photographer, commissioned for editorial assignments by the New York Times and other publications, while also giving more of her time to long-term personal projects in the Middle East.

Boushnak’s main focus has been on her on-going projects, “I Read I Write” and “Survivor.” The former revolving around Arab women’s education and literacy, while the latter highlights the aftermath of war and its impact on individuals long after the fighting has ended. Both projects have received honorable awards and recognition including: the first Getty Images/ lean-in editorial grant, The Terry O’neil Photography Award in the UK, and two honorable mentions in the UNICEF Photo of the Year Award.

Her work has been part of public and private collections, which include the British Museum, and has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, such as the Birmingham Museum in the UK, the Sharjah Art Museum in the UAE, and The Arp Museum Bahnhof Ralandseck in Germany.

Boushnak is a TED fellow and has been invited to give talks in different parts of the world, including two separate TED talks in 2014 and 2016, where she shared the stories behind her “I Read I Write” and “Survivor” projects to a worldwide audience.

She is the co-founder of RAWIYA, the first photo collective in the Middle East.

:: Exhibition: 5 Oct to 18 Nov 2018
:: Guided photographer & curator tour: 5 Oct, Fri, 6pm to 7pm
:: Artist talk I: 6 Oct, Sat, 2pm to 4pm
:: Artist talk II: 6 Oct, Sat, 4pm to 6pm
:: Slideshow Projection featuring Women Photograph: 8 Nov, Thu, 730pm to 9pm
:: Short Film Screening: 5 Oct to 28 Oct, 12pm to 7pm, Lower Gallery
:: Women in Film 2018 (10 to 13 Oct, 730pm)